Hollywood Park: A Memoir

Beating the odds against a remarkably traumatic childhood (late 1970s to present-day; California and Oregon): Are there enough words to describe a severely deprived childhood marked by abandonment, abuse, addiction, mental illness? 

Yes it seems if every word is on fire. The kind of literary firepower Indie rock songwriter/musician-turned-author Mikel Jollett has penned in his exquisitely aching and written memoir, Hollywood Park.

Now 45, Jollett’s prose feels like he poured every ounce of his being and musicality into unmasking his story, after spending two-plus decades hiding behind “masks.” Hiding terribly pained, lonely, ashamed feelings. 

You don’t need a major scientific study – the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – to tell you traumatic childhoods can kill 70% of its victims. Jollett’s miraculous survivalist story bemoans that loudly.

For the fullest experience, you may also want to listen to his sixth album also named Hollywood Park, produced to accompany his memoir. You’ll hear the same rhythmic force and poignant voice in the music and lyrics embedded in his awesome prose. (Note: the horse-racing and running imagery highlight pursuits that profoundly affected him):

More than an outstanding memoir/album combo, the book reads like a real-life enactment of abnormal and child psychology texts, and why mental illness and addiction are toxic to an entire family. 

Toxic is this review’s word of choice since it’s also central to the name of the rock band Jollett founded in LA – The Airborne Toxic Event. Considered alternative rock, the genre is more eclectic, original, or challenging than traditional rock. Mixing guitars, keyboards, drums, violins, and cello gives the music a distinctive, pleasing quality. Hear it again in Jollett’s breakout song, Sometime Around Midnight, written one particularly emotionally devastating night after he broke up with his girlfriend, when he admitted to himself he had a serious issue committing to relationships. One of many excruciating coming-of-age literary scenes. “Music makes me feel like I belong somewhere,” says Jollett: 

The band’s name references part of Don DeLillo’s National Award-winning novel White Noise, in which a character, Jollett tells us, was “exposed to an enormous toxic cloud.” Precisely what his “ping-pong ball” life was like. We know that the moment we read this emotionally piercing opening paragraph:

“We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us, or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion, the wide-open places we were free to run like wild horses in the night.”

Synanon – a notorious commune – once sat on the grounds spoken of. Initially a drug-rehabilitation “live off the grid” experiment, it ended up as one of the most violent cults in American history.

Synanon is where Jollett’s trauma begins. Forget freedom, utopia. Heads of children and their parents who came there to be saved were shaved, then their children were ripped away at six months of age under some perverse notion they were “children of the universe.” Raised by other women on the commune, the memoir opens when Mikel is five, his brother Tony seven. Age differences and temperaments make a huge difference in how their stories play out. Their father an ex-con addicted to heroin and alcohol; their mother an alcoholic (like hers) with a very distorted view of motherhood and family.

Mikel is the gentle, wanting-to-please child; Tony the angry, inconsolable one. Mikel bonded with childless, good-hearted Bonnie, the closest he ever came to having a real mother; Tony attached to no one. Their drama begins when their birth mother sneaks them out of the commune in the dead of the night, telling Mikel and Tony to call her “Mom,” an empty word regarding her. She’s a tormenting broken record repeating everything will be alright, nothing to fear as she’s rescued them.

Nothing is ever right, and fear is ever-present. Fear they’ll be caught by the commune searching for them. Fear of being alone. Fear of a mother who brainwashed Mikel into believing “a son’s job is to take care of his mother.” Amazing how imprinted that twisted message was for years, thinking all mothers treated their children the same.

Divided into four parts, running away from the commune is Part I, Escape. Part II, Oregon, specifically a “white trash corridor of northeast Salem,” is where they soon land. Their father has escaped too, but to LA with Bonnie detailed in California, Part III. Oregon is where more fears set in. “Mom” sees herself as the victim, never her children. Pits “Superchild” Mikel against “Scapegoat” Tony. Soon, a new fear arises. Fear of two step-dads who come and go. Both are addicts. One tries his best, takes Mikel fishing and hiking but his fate terrifies; the other is despicable, physically abusive, and forces Mikel to butcher rabbits he’s raising in a barn alongside their ramshackle house. Mikel is haunted by the violence; Tony refuses to touch the food. Dinner is a nightmarish event day after hungry day. No memories of comfort food in this bizarre, chaotic house. 

Mikel tries heartbreakingly hard to keep the peace, mothering his mother under her “special child” expectations, bearing the brunt of her psychological dependency and disease. Tony becomes a bad influence on Mikel, but it takes years for him to also descend on a downward trajectory.

Mikel is a precocious child and avid reader, far more advanced than others his age. Even when Jollett relives part of his story from a child’s perspective, it’s clear to others and us he’s well-beyond his years. Infusing enough misspelled words, questions, and immature thoughts helps him sound young. Sadly, we know he never felt young. 

In elementary school, he’s placed in a Gifted and Talented Program rather than skip grades. While there’s a realistic, thoughtful debate as how best to challenge highly intelligent, formative minds, his mother ignores the school’s recommendation deciding without giving it much thought believing she’s the expert!

Bouncing back and forth between two very different worlds in two different states, the California chapters are the author’s happiest. Wonderfully, Bonnie is still with their father, and he truly wants to be a father. Bonnie’s Jewish family opens their arms to Mikel and he enters junior high school there. Viewed as betrayal by his self-consumed, guilt-inflicting, deteriorating mother whose working at an Oregon mental hospital with prisoners teaching group therapy! Astounding when she’s grossly failed to nurture her own group/family.

Junior high is a fascinating period from the standpoint of the author sensing belongingness. Bused into a school where he’s the racial minority, he relates to disadvantaged kids who’ve been victimized too. In high school, he desperately tries to fit in, discovers long-distance running, which becomes obsessive on the track team at Stanford University, where he’s accepted on a scholarship. Dream come true? Not when you’re an outsider among the elitist crowd.

College is included in Part IV, Hollywood Park, named after the racetrack Jollett and his father spent so many good times together. Bottled up angst propels his music, learning how to “make the pain useful.” 

After his father’s death, Jollett poured his heart out in his memoir. A testament to appreciating he’d been “just broken enough to see beauty.”

Lorraine

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Code Name Hélène 2

Courage in war and love – inspired by the true story of a female British spy working with the French Resistance (London and France, 1936-1944): How is it that we don’t know the name Nancy Wake, “the most decorated woman of WWII”? Awarded medals of honor from three countries for her bravery, leadership, and cunning saving thousands of lives during the years Hitler rose to power persecuting Jews and when Germany invaded the South of France.

Nancy Wake
via Wikimedia Commons

We’re not the only ones who hadn’t heard of Nancy Wake. Ariel Lawhon writes in her informative Author’s Note that when she first heard about Nancy from a dear friend, she’d “never read any story like it – much less a true one!” Adding, that “in all my years researching and writing historical fiction, I’ve never come across such a bold, bawdy, brave woman . . . amazed by her exploits.” Lawhon’s three years of research and amazement factor into crafting this amazing historical novel about an eye-catching woman who could match any man.

The photo above captures this captivating woman, a journalist-turned-spy who used her seductiveness as a powerful weapon, but wasn’t afraid to use a real one when she had to. What you don’t see is her trademark red lipstick, her “armor”: Elizabeth Arden’s Victory Red, “a slender tube of courage.” Interestingly, the lipstick was launched during the war to inspire a fighting spirit. Nancy personified a fighter, wore the lipstick to telegraph she was. 

Nancy Wake was a dynamo. Her real name is the least used in this masterly novel of codes. In a shrewd, tantalizing voice, she confides in the opening line of Code Name Hélène, Lawhon’s riveting fourth novel, “I have gone by many names.”

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand, grew up in Australia, a country she fled at the age of sixteen, already signaling she’s gutsy. Proven over and over in the four pseudonyms she audaciously assumed before and during WWII. She loathed the Nazis after witnessing their brutality against innocent Jews when she covered a story as a Paris-based journalist working for the Hearst Newspaper Group. 

Code names are listed on a one-page prologue of sorts, summarizing the roles she brilliantly played as that “fighter,” and “the smuggler,” “the spy,” and “the target.”

These names help organize this seat-of-your pants novel so immersive its 450 pages whiz by. Reading it feels like you’re in the midst of watching the most suspenseful, affecting movie you’ve seen in a long time. Not only because so many lives were at stake, including hers, but she left behind a “Great Love” in Marseille, on the Riviera – her irresistible husband Henri Focca, “the most notorious heartbreaker in all of France.”

On page nine we’re told there’s a husband, but their intoxicating love affair evolves and interweaves. Sometimes in his falling-madly-in-love, willing-to-do-anything for her voice, breathing sexual bantering and passion into Nancy’s war chapters. As Nancy gets deeper into the French Resistance spying for the British, she has no idea if Henri’s safe as she was away fighting the Germans when they invaded where their home was – overlooking the Mediterranean, a vital port town – ending the so-called Free Zone under the Vichy government in southern France. 

Writing two intense storylines – war and profound love – must have been exhausting and stirring. 

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of Nancy’s identities and escapades:

  • As Madame Andrée she was a socialite journalist in Paris when she watched in horror a Nazi whipping, dehumanizing, a Jewish woman on a public square, surrounded by “brownshirts” who were “tormenting Vienna Jewish shopkeepers.” You can count on her meeting up with this Nazi again, when he plans to kill her and her right-hand man. His is the face that thickens her blood, makes her fearless.
  • Hélène is the first alias we meet in Chapter One, eight years or so after the other names. She’s parachuting in the dark out of a Royal Air Force bomber plane The Liberator into enemy territory in a strategic mountainous French region, Auvergne. It’s the first time she’s ever been dropped from the sky, having completed, excelled at, grueling training by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Two teammates are jumping with her: an indispensable, Hungarian radio operator Denis Rake glued to BBC’s French Radio Service, and her partner Hubert, a spare-no-words, former Army soldier she didn’t like in training, but now depends on. How Nancy ended up in this death-defying situation executing her mission is told in heroic war chapters alternating between 1944 and her past adventures, with a romance that converges like none other.

Besides critical radio communications – deciphering secret codes with instructions, and transmitting equipment requests and field updates – a bicycle is another life-saver for delivering messages to the French Resistors hiding out in the region’s scattered small villages. Bicycles are everywhere, allowing her to blend in. In one muscle-aching scene, you will not believe the inner strength she draws upon to get the word out.

Leading the resistors so they can “wage their unique brand of guerrilla warfare,” she must first earn their respect. Formidable for the “maquisards” who viewed her sexually and weren’t “formal soldiers” but willing to “make one last, desperate stand against Hitler’s invaders.”

Whatever you call her, Nancy earns everyone’s respect.

  • Lucienne Carlier is the name she adopted in Marseille when she and Henri were married and living extravagantly. He made his money in his father’s shipbuilding business, a despicable character, another storyline. Henri’s love is beautifully selfless, understanding he couldn’t stop his wife from smuggling Jewish refugees to safety, jeopardizing her own. 
  • The Germans dubbed her The White Mouse once Nancy keeps outsmarting them. Naturally, she becomes a prime target on their kill-list.

One defying scene after another fills the pages with high-stakes drama. The prose varies its pace, intensifying the impact. It flows from long sentences to clipped ones; sometimes a single word is a sentence, followed by a sequence of more one word sentences. An effective technique that strengthens the “extreme” of “inhuman, barbaric” crimes against humanity, “beyond the pale of what one human should do to another.”

A radically differently type of extreme is also here. It’s what makes love noble, courageous.

Lawhon’s literary range is extreme. Moods and emotions go from vivid, movie-like war stories that show the very worst of us to the pinnacle of the very best of us.

Lorraine

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The Beauty of Your Face

Embracing who you are (Chicago around 2010s; backstories 1970s – 2002): Like the main character in Sahar Mustafah’s spectacular debut – Afaf Rahmen – the author’s parents are also Palestinian immigrants who came to America, to Chicago, where the author lives and The Beauty of Your Face is set. The beauty of this gripping novel is its elegance in seeking our understanding towards Muslim Americans in a world too terrified to understand.

The prose is gorgeously sad and empowering despite all the hatred and violence Afaf and her unraveling family endure. Prose that lets us feel what it’s like to be victimized by racism towards Muslims – to the extent anyone other than the oppressed can truly feel that.

While the emotional impact of the novel burns slowly, there’s nothing slow about the novel, opening with a horrific terrorist attack at an elementary school, where Afaf has been the principal of for the past ten years. At the Nurrideen Islamic School for Girls, outside Chicago, she’s been “overcome by her students’ sense of pride and purpose. There was an infinite number of choices for these women.” Not so for her mother’s generation.

Afaf’s rise through her daunting childhood to an important societal profession she’s proud of is remarkable given the life she’s had growing up in a struggling family teetering on the edge of disaster. Until catastrophe strikes and she’s left with no one to turn to, at home and or in school. Mystery, secrets, Islamophobia are all wrapped up in a very moving drama.

The terrorist attack – the not knowing what happened to Afaf, the children and teachers – stays on our minds as Mustafah doesn’t return to it until after Afaf graduates from high school. 

Afaf’s story opens in 1976 when she’s ten, her sister Nada seven years older, her brother Majeed seven. They and her father Baba, who toils at a plastics-factory to support his family, all want to assimilate into Western society, want to belong. Afaf’s miserably unhappy Mama worsens their chances and outlook as her objectionable presence hovers like a dark cloud.

There’s little pleasure inside Afaf’s house, except for the savory Middle Eastern meals Afaf’s mother cooks that remind her of her homeland she misses terribly. Dishes named in Arabic infuse the novel with their culture. No one in the novel’s beginnings practices their religion, yet they’re a family in dire need for prayers.

No matter how hard her father tries to keep the peace, Afaf’s mother remains a fragile shell of a clinically depressed woman “weeping” too often. Mostly, she goes from silence to outbursts of uncontrollable anger. Among her three children, Nada is clearly the favorite, dutiful Majeed next, whereas she has no use for Afaf, never a kind word. These dynamics become all too clear when Nada doesn’t return home one life-changing night and Afaf’s mother descends into madness. She acts as if Afaf is responsible for Nada’s disappearance.

What happened to Nada? The police cannot find her, but they do have a theory. Thirty pages in, the reader gets a gimpse into it, but it takes another seven dreadful years for us to actually know. Meanwhile, the family is never the same.

Over the years, Afaf is always looking over her shoulder, imagining she sees her big sister. Her father devolves into a full-fledged alcoholic who no longer enjoys escaping through music with his two Muslim friends in their little band. No one is watching out for Afaf and Majeed. How can they be when they’ve completely fallen apart? (Except for Majeeed, an overachiever and into sports, who seems to stay intact.)

It’s not until Afaf’s father hits bottom that he turns to Islam, where he finds salvation and belonging. It’s not lost on the reader that his wife desperately needs this but, like everything in America, she vehemently objects.

Chapters count the days Nada is gone so we can feel how Nada’s “absence is like an earthquake rattling the house.” A house that’s “tomb like.” All while Afaf is constantly bullied at school when she’s not being ignored or taken advantage of, demeaning and humiliating her. 

How does Afaf manage to protect herself against all the threatening, hate-filled words and behaviors thrown at her? How do you stay strong when you don’t feel safe anywhere? When there’s no place you feel you belong? How do you survive when you want to “feel like Americans but they don’t want us to feel that way”? 

One of the theys is the terrorist. A while male whose a lost, abandoned soul, similar to how Afaf feels. Otherwise he’s the antithesis of her – her dignity, gentleness, goodness, but he too has been dealt a bad hand.

The terrorist’s chapters show a marginalized person becoming a deranged shooter. Still, Mustafah doesn’t want us to hate him. Rather, she wants us to understand how an ostracized person could allow racial animosity to grow into beastly rage. How the powerless find chilling power in people’s “pleas for their lives.” And yet, the author offers kindness and generosity in her godly purpose. This is what makes her novel exceptional, beautiful.

Eventually, there are people who welcome Afaf at her most vulnerable time, when she allows her Muslim sisters to do so. Embracing her religion and culture is the greatest gift her father can give her. At first, she rejected his idea of stepping into the Islamic Center – where he’s found community, worship, a reason to live – to see what it’s like. When she finally agrees to a visit, she’s hit by warmth and friendship. What the reader sees is how “hope is religion,” and how Islam is meant to be “a religion of peace, not terror.”

Your heart breaks when Kowad reaches out to Afaf at the Center, inviting her to her home. She once had a childhood friend, but she’s older now, amazed to find “someone who didn’t want something in return,” and struck by parents who “engage in actual conversations” with their children. We see how children feel loved when they’re treated with respect, interest, care. Kowad’s friendship, and the older women at the mosque, make a huge difference for Afaf. 

Spiritual transformation and acceptance of Afaf’s cultural customs after decades of “invisible years” gives her the strength to feel empowered and hopeful. She’s always been an avid reader, but now her eyes are opened to teaching as a profession that gives her life meaning and “intoxicating independence,” taking us back to where her story began: a principal at a Muslim school with a shooter on the loose. 

Afaf’s story is one of grief and healing. She’s been a survivor. The burning question is whether she survives the terrorist attack after all she’s gone through and achieved? 

Afaf’s spirit, not just her face, is beautiful to behold. 

Lorraine

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The Love Story of Missy Carmichael

A “coming of old” love story for all ages (London, present-day; Cambridge University, 1950s and later): For everyone who could use a friend, a dog, or the kindness of strangers in the isolated world we find ourselves living in right now, The Love Story of Missy Carmichael delivers all three. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, affirming life as Missy discovers different forms of love and home.

Palpably lonely, seventy-nine-year-old British Missy graduated from one of the world’s greatest and oldest universities, Cambridge outside London, where she worked in their Classical Faculty Library as an archivist. She gave that stimulating life up when she married Leo, because he “felt like home.” Sensing she shouldn’t let her light interfere with his “sun-light quality,” he rose to become a famous professor, thrived on the adulation, while she “drowned in the dreary call of child care.” He’d had an affair before they got involved, which, rightly or wrongly, haunted Missy for the rest of their time together, fearing she’d lose him. If only Missy loved herself the way Leo loved himself. You’ll come to resent his self-centeredness, ignoring how much she sacrificed for him. She did her best at mothering two very different children: Melanie, “her cross” crying all the time, and Alistair/Ali, “her balm.”

Now Leo is gone, and she’s estranged from Melanie for the past year (after a terrible fight alluded to you’ll eventually learn what that’s all about), so she feels gone too. The last straw was when darling Ali moved to Australia three years ago with her “golden grandson” Andrew. 

All that’s left is Missy lost in their big “time warp” of a relatively-unchanged 1950s house in London. Empty, the house no longer feels like home, stripped of a lifetime of memories and artifacts hidden in the attic, too painful to be reminded of. “Like other unmentionable things, it must be rolled up, stuffed away and forgotten,” she says, but the heart does not forget.

That’s the Missy we meet in this emotionally pitch-perfect novel by debut author Beth Morrey, who knows her way around writing and creativity as a former producer for Britain’s RDF Television.

That sparsely decorated house is where you’ll find Missy most days, going weeks before talking to anyone. Which is why it can take her a week to come up with anything to email Ali about, worried he’ll think her “trivial.” Why did Missy allow her world to become so limited? She doesn’t want to think about that, yet the novel is full of her bittersweet recollections. 

The Missy who greets us is suffering from “abstract, galactic isolation” like all the quarantined people around the globe are understanding like never before. “My loneliness, my emptiness, was a balloon that bobbed and dragged me away.”

Losing and finding “home and hearth” sums up Missy’s late-in-life story. Defined in Missy’s classically-trained mind as oikos, “an important concept in Ancient Greece.”

“How big a family did one need to achieve it?” Can you find Home – love, belonging, connectedness – outside your immediate family? Missy’s answer comes out-of-the-blue from unlikely friendships and one very special dog.

Dogs are absolutely central to Missy’s story. Dogs make sure we get outdoors. Dog walkers know they’re ice-breakers for people like Missy who “craved the comfort of human contact.” Clichéd but they really are man’s best friend. Unconditionally loving us, dogs worm their way into ours hearts, always crazy-wagging-tail happy to see us. Some dogs are more special than others. Those are the ones who become companions we cannot imagine living without. Missy could use a dog for all those reasons.

The idea of a dog is triggered when the novel opens on a day when Missy forced herself to get out of the house to take a walk in the neighborhood park, “to clutch on to that last vestige of an inquiring mind, stop it from slipping away.” The weather wasn’t pleasant; she was motivated by the outlandish event cited in the opening sentence: “It was bitterly cold, the day of fish-stunning.” Reading that line you might think you opened the wrong book! Be glad you were curious to read on (then a great one-liner) as you’ll learn that odd fish reference really happened at Cambridge University, among others.

Cambridge fills a lot of Missy’s memories as this was where she allowed herself to have some fun, where she met Leo.

Mathematical Bridge in Cambridge
by Steff / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

At the park, Missy collapses and a stranger comes to her rescue: forties Sylvie whose “joie de vivre” and “elegant Georgian house” (she’s an interior designer) the opposite of Missy. Sylvie is one of the dog walkers in the park, adores her two fluffy “dove-blue” dogs, Nancy and Decca. While tending to Missy helped onto a bench a friend of Sylvie’s bounces by: activist journalist Angela whose red-hair fits her hot personality. She’s chasing after her rambunctiously lovable son Otis, a little older than Missy’s Andrew.

Meeting them slowly affects Missy’s misery as they offer kindness, empathy, friendship. Offering, as defined by another Greek word, entheos, “the Greek buzz of enthusiasm.”

Once Missy recovers, Sylvie and Angela invite her to join them for coffee at a cafe Missy sometimes frequents alone, when she dares to leave her house. Overwhelmed they’ve asked her to come along, she’s worried, pathetically, that if she says yes she will “look too eager.” Too desperate, which she is.

Soon after, she’s invited to Sylvie’s kitchen where her joy in food and design reflect she’s happy with herself. Or “philautia” in Greek, meaning “love of the self.” It’s why Sylvie chose singlehood. Angela and Otis are there too. Late thirties Angela has had enough of marriage, after twelve unhappy years. A caring mother, she’d rather raise Otis by herself in a cramped apartment on a passionate journalist’s salary. Pulled in many directions, she has a lot on her good-hearted mind.

Like caring about a journalist friend going through a messy divorce. Needing a few months to work things out, Angela is determined to help find a foster home for her dog. Angela is not so preoccupied to size up Missy’s home and perceive her loneliness. A win-win solution to help her friend and Missy, maybe. Missy turns her down, until an incident occurs, agreeing to let Bobby into her house.

From there, Missy’s story takes off. And looks back, taking us to her WWI grandfather, to her father killed in WWII, to a brother lost soon-after, to a fierce suffragist mother who would not settle for motherhood at the expense of everything else, now gone too. Losses have defined Missy.

A bit of nostalgia for those bygone days can be found in Missy’s attic Sylvie discovers one day, like her grandmother’s “flapper dress” and Ali’s Dinky cars. “Shivers me timbers,” Sylvie gasps, prose that befits these old-timey treasures.

By Erik Baas / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Missy drank “to forget” what she had, lost, and didn’t do. Leo is a huge part of that. The two always passing in the wind, never stopping “to say I love you.” Piercing her heart as it’s too late, she wonders: “Why did I hold it all in?”

Everyone has regrets they need to accept. Some include secrets. A very big one awaits the reader. 

By then little things that add up to “life’s pick-me-ups” have happened to Missy. Which is why this smile-worthy, ageless story is a share-with-your-isolated friends pick-me-up.

Lorraine

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The Operator

Eavesdropping changes lives (Wooster, Ohio, 1952 – 1953; backstory Depression years): Prussian Blue, considered a color of “cool intensity,” makes a perfect color choice for a luxurious hat purchased by the nosy, opinionated, passive-aggressive protagonist in The Operator: thirty-eight-year old Vivian Dalton whose resentment seethes below the surface of this deliciously gossipy and quirky story charmingly written by debut novelist Gretchen Berg. As an infidelity plot unwinds, Vivian’s anger bubbles over, reflecting a coolly intense tone.

Vivian, though, is not a charming person. (Nor is her aloof, silent husband Edward.) She resents a lot of things, like her nemesis, Betty Miller, whom she sees shopping through the windows of an expensive clothing shop, Beulah Bechtel, where Vivian splurged on that Prussian Blue hat. The store – located in a small fifties-era town, Wooster, Ohio “where everyone knew everyone else’s business – is one of many historical references that turn out to be true. The biggest comes as a delightful surprise at the end in the Author’s Note. Don’t peak. Read it after you finish as it will bring a smile.

Vivian is someone you’ll come to understand and root for, having felt tossed aside most of her life. And maybe again if what she’s heard listening in – eavesdropping – as a switchboard operator for Ohio Bell Telephone. The type of operator whose voice you would have heard back in the day when you picked up your phone to make a call but you couldn’t dial anyone directly. The operator had to connect you. She (of course she’s a woman) wasn’t supposed to listen in on the line, but human nature being what it is, especially for someone as bored and lonely as Vivian, she does.

It’s one thing to eavesdrop for gossip to entertain a hum-drum life, another when you hear Betty Miller tell someone on the other end with an unfamiliar voice about a rumor involving your husband of sixteen years. Stabs your heart when you have low self-esteem but take pride in “knowing people.” If what you heard is true, it means you’ve been married to a man you don’t know at all. Mortifying, since Vivian has worked hard to keep her life private. Distrusting, since she feels everyone has let her down. 

Sixteen pages in you’ll have a good sense why what Vivian overheard “feels like the rug of her life has been yanked out from under her,” threatening everything she’s accepted as the best she could get, everything she depends on. It may not be much compared to the people she reads about in her celebrity magazines, her prime reading source as her mother taught her to be wary of books. If the scandal is true, she’ll have even less.

Granted it’s risky for Vivian to go poking around to pursue the truth – “be careful what you wish for” – but this time she cannot let bygones be bygones. She’s after the truth. We like truth-tellers. Vivian’s tale may be decades old, but it’s quite relevant today when truth is a precious commodity.

Vivian feels guilty for the extravagant hat purchase, but cherishes it because of the image it projects, having been poor all her life. Too poor to get an education beyond 8th grade, resentful of her family for depriving her of one. Too poor in the early years of her marriage for Edward to afford a telephone in their ramshackle first house. Resentful of that too, given her job is wired to that important communication device.

Adding fuel to the fire is that it was Betty spewing that awful gossip. Vivian never liked her. Betty is a rich, spoiled snob and a show-off, being the daughter of the town’s mayor, who made his money as the owner of the town’s bank. Petty, shallow, vindictive are other words to describe her. Worse, she’s a racist and ethnically prejudiced, condescending to “people forgetting their place.”

Vivian started eavesdropping at age ten with that “glass-pressed-on wall trick” we may have mischievously done when we were kids, making the novel a step back onto memory lane. You’ll love the old-fashioned talk. Remember when people used to say garsh? Highfalutin? But when it comes to unfaithfulness, betrayal, if that’s what it is, exposing secrets buried for years, Vivian’s story isn’t, sadly, out-of-date. 

For young Vivian, all she wanted was for her mean older sister to include her when her cousins came to visit instead of always excluding her. Sandwiched in-between three other siblings, she was “perpetually craving attention.”

Perpetual is a big word for Vivian. So is Excruciating. Retribution. Oblivious. Words she doesn’t know, but looks up in the dictionary, shamed by her tenth-grade bright daughter, Charlotte. Words that are simply defined and quoted, breaking up paragraphs with dictionary definitions typeset differently from the rest of the prose using a ubiquitous font we used on manual typewriters, as if typed on index cards we remember too. Words that cleverly describe Vivian and her emotions. Berg shows us that you don’t need highfalutin words to express a character’s feelings.

Six months before the novel opens, the biggest news that’s come to this town is that Betty’s father’s bank was robbed of a quarter of a million dollars. He’s promised to pay everyone back. “When you’re as big a man as J. Ellis Reed, you had a responsibility to maintain a certain standing in your community.” So full of himself he irks us, just like Betty does.

Vivian, on the other hand, is grateful for her job that doesn’t pay well but gives her “independence and possibility, and her first taste of power.” More than that, it shows what the dignity of work means. How it gives someone a “sense of control” in a world “full of uncertainty.”

A hundred pages in, you’ll figure out what the Betty phone call conveyed and why it could ruin Vivian’s life. The small town feeds on her anxieties and fears. Consumed by them, Vivian finds solace in baking, using recipes our grandmothers used. She also soothes herself singing nursery rhymes and writing rhyming poems. All part of the sly, character-driven prose.

Vivian doesn’t reach out to people except superficially. She has no real friends, not even the gaggle of switchboard operators she works with every day. She observes them though, distantly.

Until one day she meets someone kind to her, a woman who repeats a pernicious theme: discrimination. Mexican, she’s the kind of person the Betties of her world would disregard, but the kind of person who pays attention to and cares about Vivian, so she’s someone Vivian can learn to trust, stretching herself to do that. 

While Vivian presents as someone whose behavior may have been stunted due to traumas in childhood, what we see after Vivian’s earth-shattering eavesdropping is a Vivian who stretches herself to get to the bottom of Edward’s scandal. That makes us proud of her.

Vivian adopts a new persona as a determined and effective private eye, who finds the strength to get out of her mousy shell to unearth buried secrets. Only then does she begin to see that glass half-full rather than half-empty.

Along the way, someone tells Vivian why she loves small towns, the novel taking another stab at stereotypes. “They’ll never really surprise you, small town people, you know.”

But Vivian does surprise us on this swell journey to get unstuck.

Lorraine

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